Natalie Coughlin knows the Olympics. The 2012 London Games will be her third time representing the United States in the world's greatest international competition, and she'll be aiming to add to her total of 11 medals: 3 gold, 4 silver, and 4 bronze. In addition to her success as a swimmer, Coughlin's one of America's most popular Olympians, and she's been on Dancing With the Stars, Iron Chef, and posed in Sports Illustrated. I spoke to her over the phone as she prepares for London.
At one point did you first think realistically, "Wow — I could actually be an Olympic athlete?
Well, realistically, I would say when I was 13. But when I was 6, my friends and I all said we were going to be Olympians [laughs], because the Seoul games were going on at that time, so the Olympics were all over television. As a swimmer, that's what you want to do, you know? So that's when I started to make it a goal, but when it became a tangible goal was at about 13.
What at that point made you realize that you might be good enough to reach that level of success?
When I was 13, that was the first time I went to nationals, and it was the first time that I had finals at nationals. I had a lot of success in a really short amount of time at that age, and I was already competing with some of the best in the country, so that was when I realized that I could actually do it.
At this point, you've basically competed and succeeded at all the highest levels of your support. Can you pinpoint anything that differentiates an Olympic swimmer from a top college swimmer or a top high-school swimmer?
It's really, we are ultra-competitive in everything we do. There's just something in our DNA that makes us the consummate competitors; like, we have to compete, whether it's at cards, or at swimming, or if it's ping-pong — it really doesn't matter. If you put us in a situation where we compete, we compete to the best of our abilities. When it comes to our everyday lives, professional athletes and Olympic athletes realize that not only is it the training that matters, but it's every choice, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, ultimately effects how you're going to compete. Having the discipline to lead a lifestyle that way is what separates us.
Does that make you crazy on a day to day basis, thinking that way about the meals you eat, the way you spend your time?
It's really all that I know. I know how lucky I am to do this. I get to be a professional athlete as my job, be outdoors and working out as my job, and I get to travel the world and represent my country. So the benefits really outweigh any obstacles or sacrifices I have to make.
How did winning the first gold in 2004 feel compared to winning the six medals you picked up in 2008?
In 2004, I was the hands-down favorite in that event. That seems like a great thing going into an event, but really, there's so much pressure when you're the favorite. But going into '08, I was definitely one of the top competitors, but I wasn't the one-and-only favorite — there was a girl who broke my world record in the semifinals of the race. When it came down to it, I performed when it mattered the most; in the Olympic finals, I was able to win gold. It was just a very different mentality going into that race than it was in '04.
Do you think that who's the favorite and the perception outside of the actual events tend to play a big factor in how the Olympians think about the events, or do some people pay more attention to it than others?
Some people pay way more attention to it than others. I have always just focused on myself, and not really followed what the competition was doing just because there's not really anything I can do to change it. Why spend energy and time stressing and worrying about what my competitors are doing? It's always been my mentality to focus on things I can control, and there's absolutely nothing I can do to control my opposition.
I wouldn't say you became a celebrity Olympian, but you've had a crossover appeal from sports into popular culture. When you started to appear on talk shows and Dancing With the Stars and that sort of thing, was that something you were interested in doing, representing the U.S. Olympic team in popular culture, or did that happen of its own volition?
It happened of its own volition. It was never a goal of mine, but at the same time, if I didn't have that sort of recognition and therefore sponsor support, I probably wouldn't have done it this long. Having the ability to cross over while still being successful has been the reason why I've competed this long. Otherwise, I would've had to get a real job [laughs]. It's definitely extended my career, and it's been a wonderful surprise. It's nothing I set out to do, because it had never been done before. Michael Phelps, his success has definitely helped all the rest of us in a lot of ways. Other than him, there wasn't anyone before him who truly made a living doing swimming. Being a swimmer, it's not possible to have a full-time job and train the way you have to train to compete at the world's highest stage. It's just not feasible. There are some people who have to do it, and they do it somewhat successfully, but swimming has to be your job. Unless you're a trust-fund baby or have financial means in some other way, it's necessary to have sponsor support.
I know that you've posed for Sports Illustrated before, so I wanted to ask about what your thoughts are on the way that female athletes' bodies are perceived in culture.
It's hard to say because every athlete — especially every female athlete — our bodies are so different. Even within swimming, there are very different body types. Mine is very lanky but very very muscular. Then there are other body types that are much more bulky, and other ones that are absolutely stick-thin. So there's a range. I think it's healthy to have the images of athletes out there, and especially female athletes. With all these eating disorders that young kids have, and looking up to these unattainable celebrity movie-star bodies or plastic-surgery bodies, it's nice to see what hard work and dedication and living a healthy, active lifestyle can do. I think it's important to portray female athletes in an attractive way, just so that young girls and other women can see that healthy is beautiful, and it's not only about being stick-thin — it's about being athletic and healthy.
Compared to training, are the Olympics more or less tiring? And how do you stay mentally and physically sharp?
The Olympics are one of the most exhausting, overwhelming, exciting, crazy experiences you could possibly imagine. There's a reason I took over a year off after the last one [laughs] — they are draining. There's so much pressure, so much excitement, and you're physically exhausted from competition, but there's just all this craziness around you, and it is draining. Fortunately, I've been on that world stage for many years and I know exactly what to expect in London, so I have a gameplan now, but they're pretty insane.
Stay tuned for more interviews with American Olympians at BuzzFeed Sports.